In the wake of violence in Rwanda in 1994, the Rwandan people sought a new term to define their experience. The English word “genocide” represented the Western world that had turned its back on Rwanda during the country's darkest hour. In place of genocide came a purely Rwandan neologism—”itsembabwoko” (from the Kinyarwandan words for “to exterminate” and “group or clan”)—with which Rwandans could speak about their own history. Through his work, award-winning Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi is contributing to African authors' efforts to add to the Rwandan narrative.
A former visiting professor and William F. Podlich Distinguished Fellow at Claremont McKenna College, Waberi returned to his old stomping grounds on Oct. 29 when he came to speak about the Rwandan Genocide and his most recent projects as a professor at George Washington University’s department of romance languages and literatures. Students at the Claremont Colleges from a variety of classes ranging from Africana studies to psychology were encouraged to attend the talk to learn more about this often-overlooked historical tragedy.
Waberi’s presentation centered around his work on the project “Rwanda: Écrire par Devoir de Mémoire,” French for “writing by duty of memory.” Published in 2000, the project is a pan-African collection of 10 African authors’ writings on the Rwandan genocide. Waberi’s contribution to the collection was a novel called “Harvest of Skulls,” which he described as “a bit of fiction and a bit of testimony—it’s a very hybrid form.”
Waberi began his presentation with a short excerpt from Haitian director Raoul Peck’s 2005 movie “Sometimes in April,” starring Idris Elba. Focusing on attitudes both within Rwanda and internationally during the outbreak of violence in 1994, the clip allowed Waberi to frame the Duty of Memory project within the context of its international significance.
“This is something that has to do with all of us,” Waberi said during his talk. “It’s not just in some remote place in Africa. I want to inscribe this discussion in a bigger picture.”
Waberi spoke of his visit to Rwanda with his fellow authors from 1998 to 1999, four years after the genocide. Describing the difficult visits to memorial sites littered with skulls, Waberi described a sense of duty and heightened sense of purpose to commemorate the lost lives.
“Part of what we were trying to do was a healing process,” Waberi said.
Even several years after the genocide, few Rwandans felt able to speak openly about the events, and many artists within the country were not yet able to tackle the emotional gravity of the tragedy. The fear of not doing justice to the weight of the situation weighed heavily on writers at the time.
“It's not only an issue of artistic failure—it's also something you cannot overcome psychologically,” Waberi said. “What we've done is only to put down a first layer of ink, but this first layer has given tools to Rwandans to talk about these events.”
After explaining the context of the project, Waberi moved on to describing the other authors’ contributions to the Duty of Memory Project. These writers—Boubacar Boris Diop, Monique Ilboudo, Veronique Tadjo, Koulsy Lamko, Tierno Monénembo, Nocky Djedanoum, Venute Kayimahe, Meja Mwangi and Jean-Marie Rurangwa—represent various African countries, including Chad, Burkina Faso and Rwanda.
Waberi stressed the importance of the African nature of this project during a time when the Western media was distracted by the 1996 Olympic Games. Even without Western media attention, the Duty of Memory project has attracted a global audience. Perhaps the most famous among these writers is Diop, who is known for his contribution to the project “Murambi, The Book of Bones.”
To conclude his talk, Waberi read an excerpt from the beginning of “Harvest of Skulls” and then took questions from the audience.
“I thought it was great to actually hear the excerpt from his book. He was talking about the writing process and how it’s really difficult to write about an event like that and talk about the experience of someone who went through that. I thought that alone was really cool to hear about,” Callie Kernick PO ’18 said.
Waberi’s message of expanding the scope of our discussion about Rwanda resonated with students.
“I think if we open up the idea of collectivism and being one with humanity and helping each other out in times of need, then I think that’s how Claremont can contribute and become involved in social issues that are outside of the bubble that we live in right now,” Alan Peck PO ’18 said.